From apostle to muted prophet

The Long Recessional
July 25, 2003

David Gilmour restores Kipling to imperial size as an active player in empire politics, arguing that imperialism and Conservatism are essential elements in Kipling's life and much of his work. Acknowledging inevitable debts to previous writers, Gilmour combines familiar (to those who have read earlier biographies) with fresh sources and a fresh emphasis. The synchronicity of Kipling's career with that of empire structures the book: the iconic apostle of empire at its zenith - a voice heard and influential - becomes, after 1905 when the Liberals came to power, a hardly heeded prophet of national decline, warning of the loss of civilisation. Kipling died in January 1936 within a few days of George V.

Gilmour's biography, amply illustrated with extracts from Kipling's work and letters, offers both specialist and general reader a stylish, balanced and thought-provoking perspective on Kipling and empire.

Kipling's "Recessional" was written for Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897. The poem or hymn, addressed to a God who is "Judge of Nations", warns of the need for humility in exercising the Imperial Mission, which the Victorians believed to be a "civilising" and paternalistic one in backward regions of the earth. The poem's refrain "Lest we forget" tolls like the bell of mortality, reminding of the fall of empires and the danger of arrogant nations that threaten civilisation. The poem appeared on the same page in The Times as the Queen's message to her subjects. Both poem and message were commended for their "moral responsibility". The poem was felt to touch the deepest response of the race and Kipling was acclaimed "laureate of that larger England whose wreath it is not for any prime minister to bestow".

Significantly Recessional also raises the problem of language and interpretation so crucial in a post-colonial world prone to paranoia about the past. In 1964 the Methodist Hymnal dropped Recessional because black Methodists believed that "lesser breeds without the law" was racist. The phrase, like many of Kipling's phrases, can be both memorable and upsetting, but the reference is to St Paul's Epistle to the Romans where the Gentiles are the Roman rulers without the law of Christ and equivalent for Kipling and his contemporaries to the Kaiser, the Boers, America or any nation felt to be guilty of boastful lawlessness - a theme Kipling treated in his Jungle Books.

Kipling, who believed in the validity of different faiths and disliked Christian missionaries, developed a "missionary" zeal for empire.

Disdainful of most parliamentary politicians, he used his writing skills (not always to their best) in defence of a muscular imperial and Conservative ideal acted out in the colonies, which made him subject to contemporary criticisms of jingoism and vulgarity. His guiding prejudice against Gladstonian Liberals and Irish and Indian nationalists (not entirely shared by members of his extended family, which included Burne-Jones and Stanley Baldwin) is presented even-handedly, though Gilmour cites a late story, The Eye of Allah, about the dangers of offering enlightenment too soon. Kipling's reaction to the Indian National Congress combined several prejudices. Englishmen, he noted, tended to lean to either Muslims or Hindus depending where they started work in India. He had started in Lahore and did not sympathise with Hindus nor really know Bengal. The Bengali "Balliol-educated" lawyers prominent in the Congress were mocked as having only a superficial veneer of western culture, which Kipling felt could not be successfully grafted on to what he saw as the obscurantism of the sub-continent. This calls for serious debate but has also inspired satire from Indians and English alike.

In his public role as an empire icon, Kipling associated with many influential figures - press barons, heads of state, generals, politicians, later becoming a friend of George V - but his iconic status was achieved through his identification (noted also by Craig Raine in the Penguin Selected Poems ) with the ordinary people of empire, "the sons of Martha" who coped in the colonies in difficult circumstances, often unappreciated.

Kipling's defence of prostitution was partly prompted by the recognition of the needs of soldiers out in India. He became, in Gilmour's words, "the voice of Simla and the ICS, of Tommy Atkins in India and South Africa, of McAndrew and the naval engineers, of millions of individuals from New Zealand to New Brunswick who were part of the imperial experience".

His global perspective on empire developed after he had left India at the age of 23, when he embraced the concept of a colonial sisterhood under European supervision - "an iron band round the earth". He would have been gratified at the part that the "larger England" of the colonies played in the second world war. When he joined the War Graves Commission in 1917 (he had lost his son in the war) he argued for the policy of "equality of treatment" based on "equality of sorrow", which meant that all the headstones should be the same, differentiated only by name, regiment or religion. If India rooted deeply in his imagination, so later did South Africa, where he spent time. A friend and admirer of Alfred Milner and Cecil Rhodes, he was anti-Boer and anticipated apartheid of which he disapproved. His fame and faith in the sister colonies made him a roving ambassador, endlessly crossing seas. America had been his home for a while (his wife Carrie was American) but he was ambivalent about American politics, though recognising that this independent and powerful country, once a colony, was a potential ally in bearing the "white man's burden".

Settling at last in England, he retained a fondness for, and political faith in, France.

The iconic figure in the pantheon of the period who occasionally suggests caricature, as public figures can, is shadowed by the creator of a canonical world of the imagination, full of a deep nostalgia and a rootlessness, reflecting the double nature of empire.

Anita Money is the great-granddaughter of W. C. Bonnerjee, first president of the Indian National Congress.

The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling

Author - David Gilmour
ISBN - 0 7195 5539 6
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £22.50
Pages - 351

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